[box cover]

Shaft (2000)

Paramount Home Video

Starring Samuel L. Jackson, Vanessa Williams, Jeffrey Wright,
and Christian Bale

Written by Richard Price, John Singleton, and Shane Salerno
Directed by John Singleton


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Review by Alexandra DuPont                    


I. THE REQUISITE AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL PREAMBLE

When I go to see crime films, I invariably take my dear relative the retired FBI agent. In addition to being a nonpareil fount of knowledge about technical foul-ups ("Why didn't he put another bullet in the magazine after he racked one in the chamber?" is one of his favorites), Relative X is a plain-spoken commentator: His words allow me to quickly gauge how Joe Sixpack is likely to react — from his or her gut — to a film.

For example: Last summer we went and saw Shaft v. 2000, with Samuel L. Jackson supplanting Richard Roundtree as the title character and John Singleton supplanting Gordon Parks at the helm. We laughed a bit, we ate popcorn, we were entertained. When we left the theater, Relative X's critique consisted, in its entirety, of the following remark:

"I liked it. It was entertaining from beginning to end."

Now, I inevitably feel a twinge of disappointment whenever I hear him say this — because, without exception, it means we've just watched a film that was mediocre at its heart. It's all there in Relative X's word choice: He wasn't impassioned — he was briefly diverted. No standout scenes were discussed, because little if anything about the film made a lasting neurochemical impression — and, in my mind, it's the longing for that sort of impression that keeps film geeks coming back to the theater again and again.

So. Shaft 2000 is a diverting film. It has two very fine and/or off-kilter performances at its core. It has a kind-of-nifty ensemble feel and a plot that's a little denser, a little more farcical, than one might expect. It also exists in a perfect vacuum of subtext, or at least I hope so — because that's preferable to the alternative, which is that a cursory turning-over of Shaft's story reveals a few thematic maggots under the rock. More on that later. I'm here to tell you that you can now buy the film on DVD, and that DVD, I'm sorry to report, has some fairly lame extras. More on that later, too. (Skip ahead to Part III if all you want to know about are the disc's paltry special features.)

II. BUT FIRST, NOT TERRIBLY BRIEFLY: SOME THOUGHTS on "SHAFT" (1971) and "SHAFT" (2000), with BLAXPLOITATION ENTHUSIASTS CONSULTED

The above being said, I'm sorry, I'm not going to jump on the film-geek bandwagon and say this film "sucks," that it can't hold a candle to the original ad infinitum ad nauseam. But I'll be happy to quote a film geek who does.

Dave Walker is the editor of BadAzzMoFo (www.badazzmofo.com), the nation's leading self-published 'zine devoted to blaxploitation film and first- and second-tier action stars — everyone from Toshiro Mifune to Cynthia Rothrock. (Issue #5, I'm happy to report, was devoted in large part to "The Foot-to-Ass Chicks," a title blurb that referred to action heroines, not some bizarre fetish. Walker has also written an article on Jesus films entitled, yes, "Jesus Christ Asskicker.") Anyway, here's part of what Walker has to say about the original Shaft:

Shaft really is a groundbreaking film, in more ways than one. After the demise of the race films and the black-cast films, audiences had been long deprived a black matinee idol. For a new generation of black audiences, Shaft was something completely different.... Beyond that, director Gordon Parks was one of the first filmmakers to really capture New York City. In fact, Shaft predates many of the classic films of the seventies that were produced in New York, and really helped to pave the way for films like Taxi Driver, Dog Day Afternoon, and Serpico, by proving to Hollywood that a film could be made cost-effectively in The Big Apple.... In the pre-Jaws, pre- Star Wars era, when James Bond films were the blockbusters of the time, Shaft earned over $23 million at the box office.... The high receipts ... helped give birth to the blaxploitation genre....

It is, however, a flawed classic. I don't think too many people will argue with me when I say that this bad boy does tend to drag a bit (remember, some of those action packed '70s classics weren't all that action packed), and for that reason Shaft ain't as good as some people like to lay claim.... More importantly, the success of Hayes' score and soundtrack would pave the way for one of the things most associated with blaxploitation — the music.... Issac Hayes' Shaft score gave way to the likes of James Brown's Black Caesar, Marvin Gaye's Trouble Man, and Curtis Mayfield's Superfly. Music and film ain't been the same since.... Like James Bond, Batman, or The Terminator, Shaft has become an enduring part of mainstream pop culture, and one of the icons of '70s history.

Tough act to follow. Walker's comments are astute, but they also reveal one of the problems with Shaft 2000: Because of all the sociopolitical art-crit baggage that rides (deservedly) on the original's shoulders, Singleton's follow-up can't really break any new ground beyond giving Samuel L. Jackson his long-deserved top billing. The new film is "flawed" much like the original in that its story isn't particularly stunning, but Shaft 2000 doesn't have the benefit of breaking new social ground; it must be evaluated on its own merits as a crime drama — not as part of a movement. And in the crime-drama sense, Singleton's update is only pretty good.

Anyway. Moving quickly through the film:

The Story: To its credit, Shaft 2000 takes place in what I guess would be called the established Shaft universe: Jackson plays John Shaft, the nephew of Richard Roundtree's original John Shaft, who's also in the film. (Jackson can't play Roundtree's son, because that role was already created — and, apparently, not handled with ratings-generating aplomb — in a short-lived TV series.) In the inevitable sequel, I imagine Jackson and Roundtree standing in a bar and someone yelling "John Shaft!" and the two of them, a la Sean Connery and Harrison Ford, turning around and saying "Yes?" simultaneously. It will be sad.

The plot is set in motion when Shaft pursues racist brat Walter Wade (Christian "American Psycho" Bale), a caricature of pure white evil who beats an African-American to death with a usher's pole. Wade gets arrested by Shaft, makes bail, skips town, gets arrested by Shaft again, makes bail again, and finally forges an uneasy alliance with Dominican drug lord Peoples Hernandez (Jeffrey Wright) — a much more intriguing character than Wade, and one who ultimately walks away with the film's lead-villain role. (Seriously: The filmmakers literally re-wrote the film's ending to give Peoples a showdown with Shaft, completely eliminating a climactic airport battle between Shaft and Wade.) A witness-on-the-run (Toni Collette) and a couple of corrupt cops working for Peoples flesh out the TV-ready plot; much violence, cursing, and other behavior we've come to love in a Samuel L. performance ensues.

What's Good: Well, the only elements of Shaft 2000 that really stand out are the film's polar lead performers — Jackson and Wright.

Jackson is of course playing his badass character, and playing him with a familiar junkyard-dog confidence; it's not phoned in or anything, but there is a certain "from the actor who brought you Jules Winfield" vibe to Jackson's performance. Still, no actor can yell "Disperse, motherfuckers!" with quite the same brio, and I for one wouldn't have anyone else in the role (though many of my peers feel he wasn't sexy enough or chilled-out enough to fill Roundtree's shoes, which is probably a valid critique).

Jeffrey Wright, who knew Jackson from the New York theater scene, is absolutely compelling as Peoples. The estimable Dave Walker has written that he found Peoples to be a "laughably offensive" stereotype, but I respectfully disagree: a stereotype of what? Of shaved-eyebrowed, "Star Trek"-sideburned, Spanglish-abusing, creepy, funny, semi-inscrutable drug dealers who drop off the ends of words, strut with impunity, give orders while performing bowel movements and stab themselves with ice picks? He's like an evil, hopped-up version of Benicio Del Toro's Fenster in The Usual Suspects, and while his mid-film takeover of the central villain role sort of screws up the plot structure, it's hardly unwelcome.

What's Not So Good: The story, while sort of pleasantly dense, is nothing I'd remember if I hadn't seen the movie a few times (friends kept wanting to see Shaft at a local second-run theater that sells alcoholic beverages — which, I might add, aids one's enjoyment of the film considerably). And Singleton is a fairly uninspired director — though this is hardly the botch one would expect from the helmer behind Higher Learning and Poetic Justice.

Most regrettable, however, is the film's aforementioned thematic breakdown. I was discussing this with an acquaintance just the other day: After the initial murder, Shaft is indirectly responsible for the problems that befall him and others. Shaft is the one who engages in police brutality, allowing Walter Wade to make bail; and Shaft is the one who brings Walter and Peoples together, leaving both of them in lockup for an extended period after bending certain procedural rules.

Also, the filmerati made much hay of the fact that a stunning amount of the violence in Shaft is black-on-black; removing the Shaft/Wade climactic showdown only exacerbates the problem. That said, I prefer to see these problems as arising accidentally — an unfortunate by-product of the filmmakers being too in love with their characters' own cool to deeply consider character or theme or to consider their own hypocrisies. (Director Singleton will all but admit to this in a few short paragraphs hence.)

Finally — and this is what the film's harshest critics keep coming back to — the Jackson Shaft should have had more sex.

III. THE SPECIAL FEATURES, SCANT THOUGH THEY ARE:

1. The Opening Menu — I want to take a moment to mention this menu because (a) it's tastefully cool, featuring an ever-shifting Warholesque triptych of Shaft faces imposed over a fast-moving urban streetscape, and (b) because it really illustrates a major trick they use to make Shaft look cool in this movie: They have him continually turning around to face the camera — a trick used to great effect (albeit more geekily) by William Shatner in "Star Trek."

2. Theatrical Trailer -- A well-crafted example of the form, in which flashy cuts of Samuel L. Jackson walking, turning his head and tilting his shades while his coat billows behind him are juxtaposed with moments of Shaft opening economy-size cans of whoop-ass. Every time I watch this trailer, I get excited to watch Shaft — though not necessarily the Shaft on this disc.

3. Cast & Crew Interviews -- There's no director's commentary on this platter, and after watching the 13-minute "Reflections on Shaft" (which I'm almost positive is a transfer of the film's Electronic Press Kit), I can sort of see why. In his sound bites, John Singleton has stunningly little of interest to say. Here's but one example:

"My biggest challenge ... was to make sure I make as cool a movie as possible. I didn't want to make a square version of Shaft."

No, really? Samuel L. is, of course, vastly more engaging; it's especially fun to watch him contort his words to avoid complimenting Singleton in any direct fashion. Entertainment journalists (oxymorons in both job title and deed) gossiped about SLJ and JS fighting like bobcats on the set, and I submit the following Jackson quote from the "Reflections," in which he says a great deal about Singleton while saying absolutely nothing:

"He poses interesting dilemmas sometimes because of his youth."

At which point Jackson just sort of grins. Also interviewed: Richard Roundtree, Vanessa Williams, Christian Bale, Toni Collette, and Jeffrey Wright. Much praise is heaped on the original 1971 Shaft (though no clips of "Shaft Classic" are shown anywhere on the disc, because Warner, not Paramount, owns the rights to Gordon Parks' masterwork), there's some talk of the script-revision process, and Jackson and Roundtree joke about running into each other at the Bryant Gumbel Golf Tournament (which is sort of a disappointing thing to hear the twin icons of Bad Azz Mofo discussing, truth be told).

Anyway, this feature's ultimately just movie-promo fluff, with no one (overtly) insulting anyone and no one named Christian Bale sounding annoyed or even slightly disappointed that his character was cast aside in the final reel, yadda yadda &tc. Speaking of which:

4. "Shaft: Still the Man" Making-of Featurette -- This feature is 16 minutes long — a whopping three minutes longer than "Reflections on Shaft" — and while watching it, one becomes increasingly annoyed at how much material is recycled among these scant extras. The same shots of Samuel-as-Shaft rotating into the camera and/or putting foot to derierre, the same one-liners, that same (well-done) car-flipping-over-a-bunch-of-parked-vehicles gag, that same 16th on a hi-hat, the same inane comments from Singleton et al. (This annoyance achieves full bloom, BTW, when you watch the two music videos on this disk and they, too, are peppered with the exact same "violence bites.")

If I didn't have the DVD loaded on my computer as I write this, I honestly wouldn't be able to tell you the difference between "Reflections on Shaft" and "Shaft: Still the Man," produced and written by William Rus and directed by Kevin Gorman. Here we have Singleton further revealing his shockingly deep grasp of what Shaft's all about ("I had to have the leather coat, I had to have the music, and I had to have a great actor who could talk a lot of mess"); I might also add that it's a bit of a hoot when they juxtapose Singleton calling his film "realistic" with a shot of a perp busting unscathed through two windows as he leaps across an alleyway.

That said, there are a handful of treasures here — but those treasures beg to be busted out as stand-alone extras. For example:


5. A pair of music videos from the soundtrack -- the less about which is written, the better:

First off, there's the obligatory "Theme from Shaft" viddie, featuring Issac Hayes surrounded a bevy of beautiful, multi-ethnic women festooned with come-hither looks, plus the requisite shots of fancy cars and musicians jamming. The end result has a sort of urban-James-Bond opening-credits vibe, only with Sonny and Cher fashions. No complaints. However:

Next, and far more regrettably, we have a truly horrible video for "Bad Man" by R. Kelly — an impressive performer ("She Got That Vibe" never fails to launch me out of my chair) who seems to have run afoul of some bad management advice. For most of the video, Mr. Kelly is sitting in a smoke-addled urban setting, wearing a bandanna and strumming a guitar, which has the unfortunate effect of being both deeply clichéd and making Mr. Kelly look like he's quit hip-hop to front for Guns 'n' Roses. And then there's the song, which is just unremittingly awful; I submit for your disapproval a brief snippet from the chorus:

I'm a bad man,
I'm not ashamed of,
I'm a bad man,
Life's made me tough.

I'm sorry — ashamed of what? Did Kenny Loggins write this?

IV. CONCLUSION AND SUMMARY OF FINDINGS

I suppose Shaft is worth seeing the way some of the lamer Dirty Harry movies are worth seeing; you're there for the visceral thrill of watching Eastwood put the smack on a perp. For that, it's certainly worth a rental — but DVD-extra fiends who enjoyed Shaft will be mildly incensed. You have been warned.

— Alexandra DuPont
dupont@dvdjournal.com



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